Thoughts on the shadow side of teaching EFL abroad
The subject of my piece is a personal reflection on xenophobia. A topic that I haven't seen covered in print in relation to the EFL teaching experience in a foreign context. I'd like to share with you my experience and personal thoughts and feelings on the matter. Perhaps, it may spark some thoughts for you in your context. I've also included some advice on dealing with xenophobic behaviour. Xenophobia derives from the Greek word and literally means "fear of the strange". It now refers to fear of strangers or the unknown and is often used to describe fear of or dislike of foreigners.
Xenophobia is learned behaviour and as such is passed down in families, groups, and institutions. Explanations for its continued perpetuation are complex to say the least but are due in part to the persistence of negative stereotypes, myth, cultural values, and cultural bias for example. Xenophobia manifests itself in individual, group and institutional behaviours and practices that are racist and offensive to the stranger. It rears its ugly head in thought, word, and action.
I have experienced it in my travels abroad and whilst living and teaching in several Asian countries. Perhaps, you have too. I have experienced locals getting up and looking for other seats on a train or in a restaurant because I had sat beside them. I have had individuals poke fun of my size and facial features. I have been stared at excessively in public spaces. I have been called a pig in class by some of my former students. I have been refused service because I couldn't speak the host language. This is of course anecdotal evidence but let it suffice to say that xenophobia exists. Several of my colleagues have had similar experiences.
How does one deal with it? My advice is not to let it get you down. Easier said than done, right? But really, don't take it to heart. Your foreignness is the object of distain. Keep in mind the context and that someone similar would most probably experience the same treatment. Exercise some detachment by maintaining some emotional distance. Don't let it affect you. If it nags at you, get it off your chest by talking about it with your peers and colleagues. If it affects you on a deeper level, seek out professional help to help you work out the issues. Don't let it interfere with your experience and enjoyment of living abroad.
I have the sense that our presence somewhat reflects a positive change in a small way. I think too that our engagement and involvement on a personal and professional level in the host society can breakdown the negative stereotypes that persist and perhaps, make some inroads in reducing these xenophobic behaviours.
On a final note, my advice is to focus on your goals and don't get sidetracked by negative experiences. Remind yourself as to what you are there to achieve. Don't let negative experiences interfere with your overseas experience. Most importantly, think positively. It can help you overcome these stresses (xenophobic bumps) and maintain your well-being.© Stefan Chiarantano 2005
Stefan has been teaching English as a foreign language in Asia for the past several years. He presently teaches English in Japan. He's a Canadian with an interest in filmmaking and photography.